In memoriam ad infinitum

As someone who’s a little death-obsessed, I’ve spent a fair amount of time contemplating the mourning process. I’ve wondered about its origins: is it a natural reaction (as some suggest is the case with many species) or a social construct? I’ve also thought about whom it serves: should it be a private or public affair? And most interesting to me, I’ve thought about whether there’s an appropriate amount of time that one should spend grieving one’s child, one’s parent, one’s spouse, and so on.

A few years ago the NY Times published an article that touched upon all the above facets of the grieving process while covering a story that was unfolding in my homeland, New Jersey. Needless to say, I was compelled.

According to the story, a conflict was brewing regarding roadside memorials: officials had raised concerns as to the number and volume (in flowers, stuffed animals, and other mourning material) of such tributes clogging the Garden State’s copious highways and byways. Ultimately at issue was the question of whether the memorials had become a public-health menace to those Jerseyans who were still among the living.

The officials argued that the overflowing memorials had not only become potentially distracting to motorists, but also that as flowers and stuffed animals decayed, they evolved into unsightly rubbish heaps – perfect nesting grounds for rats.

The big hurdle, of course, that the officials faced in cleaning up the memorials was that the crash sites had become, to the minds of the bereaved, sanctified; they were no longer merely points along public roadways, but also the locations of Johnny’s or Jill’s soul-departure. (Did I mention that NJ is a predominately Catholic – and therefore somewhat superstitious – state?)

“Why not really pinpoint the death-spots,” I wondered, “and claim the right to perpetually keep a wreath on as ambulance stretcher or hospital bed?” Sounds crazy, but that’s actually close to the lengths that some take when they claim the actual light-pole or tree that inflicted their loved ones’ final trauma. Graphic and tragic I know, but true nonetheless.

Anyway, given the boiling-over emotions, mourners won the day: Roadside tributes were to remain in perpetuity – at least this is how I remember the story concluding. And since I was just back home it seems that my memory is correct. While on my trip, I noticed more than a few points of soul-departure, some of which seemed less than fresh.

Besides the obvious reasons for finding the above story compelling, I find the refusal (or inability) to move past grief interesting because I can’t think of another subject or area in our culture – except maybe the Holocaust and 9/11 – that prompts the insistence that we “never forget.”

Really, when you think about it, we’ve forgotten about some pretty major shit like Bush the lesser lying to the world about Saddam’s WMD programs and ties to al Qaeda or his father’s illegal weapons aid to the Contra rebels. In fact, as a society we are so willing to forget that both Bushes won elections after these major fuck-ups! But I digress.

On to another type of memorial that I’ve probably spent too much time thinking about: the rear-window decal. For those not privy, here’s a sample:

When I moved to SoCal and first noticed similar testaments, I was a little disturbed, primarily because I wondered what mourners intended to do when selling their cars. Did they remove the decals, or did they expect the new drivers to keep the stickers in place? I assumed it was the former, but as illustrated the by the NJ story, people can be a little obsessive when it comes to dead loved ones.

After living here for a while and getting used to seeing the decal memorials, however, they started to seem (as public mourning goes) kind of healthy to me – like the length of time that the average person owns a car (what, 3-5 years?) is a normal length of time one should grieve. Still, it’s pretty sad when you see an “R.I.P. my beloved ______” decal on a total jalopy that’s spewing black smoke – not much dignity there. Should one call 1-800-EXHAUST and rat out someone who’s possibly on his way home from a funeral? Now that would be disrespectful.

It’s true that the length of time one grieves is a personal choice (if choice is the right word), but I do think there comes a time when grief becomes no longer about the dead but about the surviving; this is when mourning crosses the line into self-indulgence. And when the rest of the community is forced to stand at perpetual attention, (as in the NJ case) it becomes not only self-indulgence but selfishness as well.

In illustrating my point, I pose a simple question: do these people really think that our empathy has no expiration date? Answer: unless they are completely off their rockers, of course they don’t. And that’s why it’s selfish of them to make us act like we give a hoot when we obviously no longer do.

Returning to the mindset of the perpetual griever: I don’t see a vast difference between someone whose life is dedicated to never letting the memory of their departed fade and cultures that traditionally bury or burn widows along with their dead husbands. Am I too callous by suggesting that mourners move on? Maybe. Or maybe I just think they could use a little tough love, and a little less coddling.

Sadly, we think that Johnny, Bobby, or Jimmy shouldn’t have died. I’m sorry, and I know it’s painful to hear, but we all not only will, but should die – at least at some point. And those left behind should mourn for a time and move on.

The biggest problem as I see it is how we tend to view death – not as part of the natural life cycle, but as a failure. Given this, we often look for blame when someone dies. We point fingers at the medical community (for misdiagnosing or mistreating an illness), law enforcement (for not protecting us), family members (for not intervening), and so on. And if there is no one individual to blame, we hold the entire living population, including ourselves, responsible. Perhaps this is why we are so willing to foist our grief upon the unwitting populace – just a thought.

But in the meantime, it’s okay to move on. I promise. Your long gone loved one would have wanted it that way.

14 responses to “In memoriam ad infinitum”

  1. I’m assuming you have watched Harold and Maude. If not, well, make a priority of it.

    Haven’t seen those rear-window decals. I will hope that this remains a west-coast phenomenon…

    One of the nicest bits in Richard Price’s recent novel Lush Life was recurring imagery of the sidewalk memorial for a Lower East Side murder victim — how it was quickly erected after the incident, aquired new trinkets (and had some taken away) over the next few days, and gradually deteriorated.

  2. Gale says:

    I think it is in “Memento Mori,” which is in itself a good meditation on death (a purchased and gifted full -body skeleton keeps whispering “you are going to die”) , David Sedaris writes about deaths in high school — how he made sure to make the most out of a fellow student’s death — how he flopped with tears for days even though he didn’t know her. I thought of this reading your post, how sometimes the memorial t-shirts and teddy bears become a spectacle of life for the left-behinds to get caught up in, and a way to make someone else’s death “all about them.”

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Interesting post. I’ve always considered the roadside memorials dialectical between an eyesore and love of family. I mostly thought they are covertly anti-drunk driving symbols.

    Dr. Cederick Cedarbrook
    (Plastic Flowers)
    (a toy medical bag)
    (Nurse Teddybears)
    He left us at TheGreatWhatisit March 22, 2007
    We will always remember you.

  4. Dave says:

    Wow, that window decal is amazing.

    There’s a ghost bike a few blocks from my apartment, a really effective memento mori. Although it creeped out my then-boyfriend when we ate dinner at a restaurant on that corner and the bike was in his line of sight; he was not into dealing with the inevitability of mortality.

  5. Scotty says:

    I mostly thought they are covertly anti-drunk driving symbols.

    This reminds me of an ethical question that I often think about when local law enforcement brings wrecked cars to prominent locations and puts anti-drunk driving signs on them (this usually occurs in Long Beach over most major holiday weekends).

    I wonder if it makes a difference if the car wasn’t really involved in an actual drunk driving accident, or if it was, and someone’s loved one was killed, I always think how tasteless the whole thing is. The visual of the wrecked car seems so base and borderline pornographic to me. But I guess I shouldn’t expect cops to be subtle.

  6. lane says:

    That ghost bike Dave speaks of has been there for years and truthfully it’s looking a little worse for the 4 or 5 Winters that it’s been there.

    Do those people really think it’s a nice tribute now? Now that the paint is peeling and the rims are rusting? The sign on the pole tells you why it’s there and maybe it makes her mother feel better.

    But that sort of thing feels kind of depressing after a while.

    Those crazy Catholics.

  7. Miller says:

    #5: At my high school, every year around the time that prom came around, we would have an assembly on the football field that addressed the dangers of drunk driving. The cops (I think MAAD might have been involved as well) would bring a wrecked car, just as you describe, place it in the middle of the field, and cover it with a tarp. Then, they would “re-enact” a drunk driving accident, where you’d hear the voices of teenagers over the speakers having a great time (all while drinking their beers, of course), followed by a loud screech and crash, screams, crying, dramatic music, etc. THEN, the big reveal–the tarp was removed. Inside were people in the seats of the wrecked car, covered in fake blood, maybe even some strewn across the ground where they had been “thrown.” Beer cans everywhere. The students were then invited to come down from the bleechers and examine the car.

    Incredibly pornographic. Does it not sound like a striptease? I remember thinking even then that this was a disgusting scare tactic–a way to feed off of the teenage fascination with violence. Who knows, maybe it really did prevent some kids from driving drunk, but I’ve always thought there must be more taseful ways of handling it.

    And, yes, we were led to believe that this was a car that had been involved in a real drunk driving accident.

  8. Tim says:

    Roadside memorials are pretty common in Ireland and many countries all over the world. In Greece, memorials are often built as permanent structures.

    This seems to me, as it does to you, Scotty, a very different kind of tribute or expression of mourning than a headstone in a cemetery or a niche in a mausoleum. It’s appropriating public space and turning it into the site of private grief. It’s a tricky area to negotiate, socially, politically, and aesthetically.

    One doesn’t want to tread on a family’s right to mourn, but does that right extend to intruding permanently on public space? I think not, but still, some of those roadside memorials in Ireland and Greece are interesting and handsome. At the very least, I think that there should be some sort of licensing procedure for anything that lasts over 30 days, with public hearings to discuss the installation of something more permanent (the construction and upkeep of which would be funded by the family) that doesn’t interfere with public thoroughfares.

    I think the stickers are just plain weird. Much more acceptable than a heap of rotting teddy bears and flowers, but just weird. The one pictured above, too, seems to be a joke. “He said the brakes were fine”?

  9. ruben says:

    Scott, we just watched a True Life doc on the Jersey Shore-thought of you.

    As far as roadside memorials go-I too am no fan of weathered teddy bears and rotting flowers but I think just such a display helped (in part) to convince a local neighborhood to pressure the city council into installing a stop light at a dangerous intersection which is about as positive and practical a response as I can imagine.

    The car things is another matter-they’re new, I don’t remember seeing them more than three or four years ago and I find them disturbing. The ones for children are heartbreaking, of course, but the general impulse is one you see all over people’s vehicles. I also have an issue with the cartoon representations of EVERY single family member on the rear tinted window of a (typically) SUV. The whole “my child is an honor student at … is annoying but I can see the school milking an easy source of fundraising but the impulse of “look at me, this is who I am, I am relelvant” I just don’t get (huge irony alert of last statement if you’ve read any of my posts, or anyone else’s for that matter, on this very blog).

    But what’s next, a conflation of the two? Caricatures of those in heaven floating near the top of the window while the current family is carefully enumerated at the bottom? Where will it end? Are we heading toward some ancient society that will trace an entire family’s genealogy on the back of their car window, like Chinese or Egyptian glyphs we will trace an entire line’s honor students and dear deceased pets?

  10. PB says:

    I have been reading Philip Pullman this week – there is a discussion about whether or not the dead want an afterlife in which they keep their distinct shape and identity but are a ghost isolated in a underworld world environment or an afterlife where they lose their “selves” but evaporate into the world as part of the eternal collective. Very Christian vs. Buddist, but interesting in the context of memory – do we comfort ourselves with the specific memory of the death or the with a celebration of the life gone merged with the life still beating. Forward vs. backward thought.

  11. ruben says:

    what kind of memorial does Jesse Helms deserve? happy fourth of july

  12. Scotty says:

    A big pile of poops.

  13. LP says:

    Last week in Florida, I drove by a very nicely maintained roadside memorial, just far enough off the road that you had to squint a bit to make out the writing. It was the deceased’s name, the dates of birth and death, and then underneath that something like “Please drive safely and watch the road.” I nearly veered off into a ditch trying to read that last bit before whizzing by.